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Verizon finally has its answer to the iPhone

The new BlackBerry Storm, which goes on sale Friday, could be the first phone offered by Verizon Wireless that truly challenges Apple's iPhone offered on AT&T's network.

Verizon Wireless may have found its iPhone killer.

Verizon Wireless

On Friday, Verizon will be the first and only wireless carrier in the U.S. to offer Research in Motion's new BlackBerry Storm. The device, which costs $199 with a two-year contract and a $50 mail-in rebate, is the first phone that could give Apple's iPhone--offered exclusively on AT&T's network for the same price--a run for its money.

I checked out the new touch-screen phone this week and have been playing around with it for a few days. My first impression is that it's pretty cool. It shares many of the same features that have made the iPhone popular, such as a touch screen, media player, and full HTML browser, making it a strong alternative to the iPhone. (For a full review of the device check out CNET Reviews where editor Bonnie Cha has put the device through its paces.)

But RIM has also been careful to retain the popular features and functionality that have catapulted its BlackBerry devices to iconic status among corporate types.

Take the touch screen as an example, BlackBerry users are accustomed to pushing actual keys. And many people I know who carry both a BlackBerry and an iPhone say they prefer the BlackBerry when it comes to sending text messages or e-mail, because they like the feel of touching buttons.

RIM didn't want to lose this feeling, so the company made sure that users still have to push down on the touch screen as if they were actually hitting a button. As an Apple iPhone user, I have to admit, it took me a little while to get used to the Storm's "push" touch screen. But in some ways I think it's an improvement over the iPhone touch screen. I can't tell you how many times I've accidentally called someone or sent a text message before I was ready to hit send, because my finger brushed across that area on the iPhone touch screen.

Another improvement over the iPhone is the fact that the Storm has 1 gigabyte of internal storage and can use a standard microSD storage card to support up to an additional 16 GB of data storage. And because they are standard storage cards, they can be swapped out and replaced. By contrast, the iPhone 3G comes in two versions, an 8GB model and a 16GB model. The storage can't be removed or swapped.

Verizon Wireless

Also, the Storm has a removable battery. Again, this appeals to me, because the iPhone's battery can't be removed, which means if it dies, so does my iPhone.

The gloomier forecast
But the Storm isn't a perfect device either. And there are a few things that I prefer on the iPhone. For one, the Storm lacks Wi-Fi. Verizon Wireless' representatives told me they opted not to include Wi-Fi because it adds "bulk, cost, and is a drain on the battery."

But truth be told, I think Verizon didn't want Wi-Fi because the company would rather have customers surf its 3G wireless network. While 3G speeds are a huge improvement over 2.5G speeds, they simply don't hold a candle to Wi-Fi. I can download e-mails and Web pages on my iPhone when using Wi-Fi much faster than when I am using AT&T's 3G network. And I can't imagine it would be much different on Verizon's 3G network.

Beyond its lack of Wi-Fi, I'd say that I prefer the touch screen navigation and Web browsing experience on the iPhone to the Storm. This of course, is a matter of personal taste. The new BlackBerry browser is slick and it works well. It's definitely a huge improvement over its older browsers. But zooming in on pages on the Storm requires clicking a button or actually clicking the screen. And I prefer the iPhone's pinching and brushing movements. But that's just me.

Overall, I think RIM has come out with a device that will give any consumer seriously considering a new touch screen smartphone an alternative to the iPhone. As a result, I think it could help Verizon retain customers ,who have been tempted to leave the carrier for the iPhone.

Let's face it, Verizon's previous attempts at introducing a so-called iPhone kliller have been lackluster. The LG Voyager and the LG Dare, looked cool and sleek, but they weren't true smartphones. RIM's other BlackBerry models have lacked the touch screen and cool factor.

Even though Verizon has not seen huge numbers of its subscribers leave its network since the iPhone was first introduced a year and a half ago, it has lost some as a result. But now, customers who are satisfied with Verizon Wireless's coverage and network reliability, won't have to leave to get a really cool device.